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Gorillas: Size does Matter

The Mbeli Bai is a large, swampy forest clearing located deep in the Republic of Congo’s Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park – where gorillas routinely engage in age-old rituals safe from the dangers of the modern world. This primitive setting presents the perfect opportunity for researchers to observe these great apes in subtle ways that do not disrupt their normal behavior patterns. Over a period of 12 years, conservationists with the Wildlife Conservation Society followed the lives of 19 adult male western lowland gorillas and their family groups in order to gain greater insight into in the mating habits of these magnificent animals.

Carefully positioned on observation platforms with telescopes and cameras, researchers were able to track the number of females each male mated with, and the number of offspring produced by each adult male and their survival. Their findings indicate that in gorilla mating circles – size does indeed matter. Consistently, the bigger the adult male, the more mates it had. “Our findings of correlations between physical traits and male reproductive success could be considered evidence of a selection process in gorillas, but it is not yet proof,” said Thomas Breuer, the lead author of the study.

In order to assess the role of size in the reproductive success of the gorillas, researchers selected three physical factors for measurement: overall body length, the size of the adult male’s head crest, and the size of an individual’s gluteal muscles on the animal’s posterior. The researchers then compared this data with information on group dynamics to discover that all three characteristics were positively correlated to an adult male’s average number of mates.

Interestingly, the data on gorilla size was not gained by using tape measures, but rather a non-invasive method called digital photogrammetry, which renders accurate measurements of individual gorillas and their characteristics from digital images by converting pixel size to actual lengths.

The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund is a supporter of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s efforts in the Mbeli Bai and is pleased to help illuminate the selective pressures that influence the evolution of great apes.

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Braving the Front-lines of Conservation

As thinking people, we pride ourselves on having the ability to create solutions to the problems that present themselves.  Sometimes the answer we seek is simple and straight forward, allowing us a quick fix – but other times, as with efforts to protect wildlife and wild places – finding the resolution often requires delving deep into the issue at hand and starting back at square one.  Such is the approach of the African Predator Conservation Research Organization.  These wildlife warriors are modern day pioneers on the front lines of conservation – creating positive change for animals in a fight against extinction.

Located in the Kwando/Linyanti region of Africa, a diverse group of researchers have committed themselves to venturing out into this untamed landscape in an effort to determine the role that disease, genetics, reproductive potential, nutrition and pathology all play in the survivability of these species.  Veterinary professionals Michael Briggs and Beth Ament routinely set out under the cover of darkness in search of carnivores. While drawing these animals to the truck with the sounds of a wounded buffalo blaring from a portable CD player may seem rather low-tech in today’s modern world, it’s an approach that’s been highly effective. Lions, hyenas, leopards, cheetahs, jackals and wild dogs often come perilously close to the vehicle. 

With an eye for the animal’s ultimate safety and the skillful placement of a tranquilizer dart, Briggs and Ament sedate the animal just long enough to conduct a thorough exam and extract blood and fecal samples to analyze back at the laboratory. While there have been no serious incidents to date, collecting information from these animals can be a risky business. There have been tense moments where it appeared that an animal might charge the truck. When asked what brings an Idaho native to work in the wilds of Africa, Briggs jokingly replies “stupidity.” Yet it’s soon obvious that this a labor of love for the doctor, “This is an awesome place, I’ve been doing this a long time and it’s just magic.” Although some areas of Africa such as Zambia and Mozambique are becoming more open-minded toward conservation initiatives, creating long-term policy change in this very political area may just require a little magic.  “We see our goal as providing hard data – and sometimes advice – but the governments there still want to measure how much direct influence outsiders have on decision-making.“ says Briggs.

Despite the dangers and challenges of such work, the valuable information gained from APCRO’s research will provide a baseline for the creation of effective conservation initiatives in the future.  It’s hoped that these results will yield long-term gains for not just one, but several species of carnivores.  This big picture approach is a unique one.  While projects abound to save a single species, APCRO recognizes that these varied carnivore species don’t live in isolation – but instead depend on and compete with one another.  This makes the effects of disease and the animal’s unique genetic make-up vital variable in the ultimate survival of all carnivores. What affects one species may affect the others – and APCRO is taking the first steps toward supplying definitive answers to this important question.  For more information about this organization’s research, please visit http://apcro.org/.

**Please note – APCRO is not a SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Fund supported project.**

 

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Ultrasonic Coded Transmitters: The “Dinner-Bells” of the Sea?

For the last 50 years, scientists have used ultrasonic transmitters, known as pingers, to study the behavior of marine organisms. They’ve been used on many species including sharks and rays, bony fishes and invertebrates – and have become an important tool in the discovery of the movements and life history of these species.  But the big mystery has always been, can marine mammals hear these signals?

The matter was recently brought into question when a southern California marine fisheries replenishment program discovered pingers on the bottom of the ocean along with fish bones.  Two of the affected fish had been “tracked” in the presence of harbor seals.  Could it be that the seals used the ultrasonic pings as a make-shift “dinner bell” to target the fish as prey?  This is an important determination because if these sounds can be picked up by predators or prey, then the data retrieved from them are likely to be skewed.  Since no real studies on the acoustic properties of pingers had been done, researchers from Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute created a series of testing environments to calculate a potential detection range for seals, sea lions, dolphins and porpoises. 

“Ultrasonic” frequencies are defined as sounds exceeding the top level of human hearing, which is normally around 20 KHz.  Although modern-day pingers use a frequency that cannot be heard by most fish, it appears that there may be some exceptions to this rule. 

To test this theory, several brands of pingers were measured under varied conditions – in a pool at SeaWorld San Diego, in a nearshore environment off of Mission Beach, California and at a U.S. Navy facility.  Care was taken to keep the integrity of experiments by placing test pingers into a thin nylon mesh bag to isolate them from vibration and prevent rotation – and consider factors such as wavelength, absorption and bottom composition.

What the researchers found was surprising.  The data collected supports the notion that marine mammals could use pingers as cues to the presence of prey species or predators – and that those Harbor Seals may very well have targeted the White Sea Bass discovered earlier.   

However, the results also suggest that the effects of audibly detected signals may work in favor of prey species as well.  Large predators, such as sharks are often instrumented with lower level pingers that could be heard by sea lions, offering them a chance to steer clear of danger.

At 69 KHz, the ranges of detection for the species evaluated were as follows:  California Sea Lions were unlikely to detect pings except with a few centimeters of the device; Harbor Seals were estimated to detect pings at 21-25 meters; Bottlenose Dolphin and Harbor Porpoise were predicted to detect pingers at ranges of many hundreds of meters.  And although the pingers tested only have a detection range of about 500 meters in nearshore waters, it’s suspected that some marine mammals, such as certain types of whales, have an auditory sensitivity that might well exceed that distance.

It’s still not clear whether marine mammals have begun searching for instrumented prey species as a feeding strategy. Data must be developed to determine whether this is indeed becoming a source of mortality.  While there’s still much work to be done – it seems that the best strategy for preventing the predation of these fish will be to ensure that marine mammals never learn to associate pings with food.

 
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Posted by on May 11, 2012 in Animal Conservation

 

First Graders on “Walrus Watch”

Although they’re young, the first graders at the Cahoon Elementary Magnet School of Animal Science are no strangers to the conservation issues that threaten our world. Through a partnership with Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, these students have been learning about the modern-day challenges effecting walrus populations. To shed some light on the subject, students were treated to a visit from renowned Marine Mammal Specialist Dr. Lori Polasek from the Alaska SeaLife Center. She explained that as temperatures get hotter each year due to Global Warming, the sea ice in the Pacific begins to melt, leaving female walrus and their calves without a home.

In the past, the mother walrus and her babies were safe floating on a block of sea ice out in the ocean – far away from the dangers of land. But now, as the ice is melting, scientists are seeing more and more of them taking shelter on land. This places them in danger for a number of reasons: they’re farther away from their food sources – and they’re closer to both polar bears and humans. In order to help develop a plan of action to help the walrus, Dr. Polasek and her team are observing the species via strategically placed cameras that record over 50,000 pictures each. At present, these cameras are the best way to study the walrus because scientists can watch from afar -without disturbing the animal’s homes – giving new mothers and their calves the safety they need and deserve.

In addition to studying the plight of today’s walrus, the students at Cahoon have built their own large-scale paper mache version of the animal which is proudly on display in the Cahoon Elementary Media Center. Students will also be observing the animals of the Arctic using webcams located on Round Island, Cape Pierce, and Cape Seniavin. These activities will assist them in the First Grade Science Fair Project – raising Krill in various temperatures to determine in which temperature they would thrive. Krill is a major food source in the Arctic.

Most importantly, this new generation of problem-solvers is learning to care about the world around them. During the talk, one of the first-graders asked why we haven’t created artificial icebergs as a solution to the melting ice. Dr. Polasek finds the student’s interest and suggestions encouraging. “Children approach these bigger issues with no boundaries, and that may be exactly what’s needed to solve the problems we face,” she said.

 
 

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Friends of Bonobos

Humans have always had an affinity for animals, but our connection to bonobos runs much deeper than a simple affection – as we share 97.8 percent of the same DNA with this highly intelligent species. 

Considered our closest living relatives, bonobos share many of our human behaviors.  They’re known to teach their young social skills, use tools to get food, and work together for the good of the entire troop.  Yet these clever creatures are considered to be the most endangered of the Great Apes, and their extinction in our own lifetimes looms as a real possibility due to hunting, habitat loss and the illegal pet trade.

All of the remaining bonobos live in the Democratic Republic of  Congo (DRC), but estimates on their exact numbers are a mystery – ranging anywhere from 50,000 to just 5,000.  The reason for this lack of knowledge stems from the fact that the area is still recovering from a decade long war that made studying the species impossible.  Now, with the war over and stability returning to the DRC, researchers must make up for lost time in their conservation efforts.  

In order to help this special species survive, a sanctuary called “Lola Ya Bonobo” was created with the goal of providing a safe environment for rescued bonobo orphans – and then, eventually, reintroducing them back into the wild.  Meeting the needs of baby bonobos, however, is quite the task.  The facility must not only meet the animal’s physical needs with appropriate veterinary care, but also their psychological needs, since most have experienced great trauma.  To combat this, infant bonobos are immediately given to a substitute mother who gives them all the love and reassurances they need to survive.  At the age of 5 or 6, if the infants are sufficiently healthy and confident, they are then introduced into a group of juveniles and adults.

In addition, efforts are made to educate children and the local people about the importance of preserving the species. Schools are encouraged to create “Kindness Clubs”– and civil servants from the Ministry of Environment are invited to visit often to ensure that laws protecting the species are enforced.

The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has supported “Friends of Bonobos” since 2008 and is pleased to help them secure a safe future for these great apes.

 
 

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Giving Captive Bears a Second Chance

Southeast Asia is home to the world’s smallest bear species, the Malayan sun bear. About half the size of an American black bear, these diminutive creatures spend their time living in the tree-tops of Borneo. Despite possessing very lengthy and intimidating claws, it appears that these bears may be defenseless against the growing threats that face them throughout their range. It’s believed that only about 10,000 of these animals remain – leading the IUCN to classify the Malayan sun bear as “Vulnerable” on its listing of endangered species.

In addition to the hardship caused by forest degradation and destruction, sun bears also continue to be hunted illegally for food and medicine, to prevent damage to crops and villages, and to be captured as small cubs for pets. 

Most of the captured bears are young orphans, ex-pets, or victims of bear-human conflicts in degraded forest areas. These bears are now living in highly unnatural conditions, many in small cages with no access to the outdoors or physical contact with other bears. While this fact is upsetting, it has been shown that captive bears that receive proper rehabilitation can be returned to the wild successfully once they’re old enough to live on their own.  For sun bears, this is between 2-3 years of age.

In order to take advantage of this encouraging information, the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre has taken on the task of rescuing these bears and giving them another chance to flourish in the wild.  They’ve created a two-stage effort to help the species fight back from the brink of extinction – by providing for the care, rehabilitation and release of captive bears – as well as focusing on education to increase awareness of the plight of the species. 

Perhaps the organization’s greatest strength comes from the fact that they’ve partnered with local governmental agencies such as the Wildlife and Forestry Departments.  This alliance will ensure the long-term success of the project in terms of political support, cooperation from law enforcement, and the availability of additional expertise for the Centre. 

The SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has supported this group since 2009 and is pleased to help preserve this special species.

 

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Invasion Down Under

Australia is known for its wild, untouched spaces, but it seems that a new invader may be disrupting the outback’s natural way of life.  In many regions of Australia, feral cats and foxes are causing severe devastation to local wildlife – and creating a habitat that has been substantially altered.  Many native species are facing extinction due to the disruption of this delicate ecosystem.

Minton Farm Animal Rescue Centre is located in a semi-rural area of South Australia and is dedicated to the rehabilitation of rescued, injured and orphaned Australian wildlife.  The 7 acre sanctuary is fortunate enough to be surrounded by minimal urbanization, yet foxes and cats still plague the facility. 

In an effort to control the effects of this new infestation, the Centre is strongly involved in community outreach programs urging people to spay, neuter and contain their pets. However, this new threat has created the need to take the Centre’s fox proof fencing one step further – and install electric fencing to ensure the safety of the animals in their care.  The animals receiving care at the Centre – koalas, possums, and an array of bird and reptile life – need to be able to undergo their rehabilitation in a safe and secure environment.

Through the help of the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, the organization has been able to purchase much needed facility upgrades as well as buy the feed, equipment and medical supplies necessary to successfully continue their rescue work. The Fund has supported the Centre since 2007 and is pleased to facilitate their work with rescued native wildlife.

 
 

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